“Evaporated like smoke”—that is one of the original meanings of the Italian word sfumato, which in the context of art refers to the gradual, imperceptible transition from one color to another in a composition, a technique that generates soft outlines in paintings. Producing an appearance that feels as if “a veil of smoke had drifted between the subject of the painting and the viewer,” this method is most prominently associated with Leonardo da Vinci and the artwork that enjoys the greatest fanfare over the world, Mona Lisa. Not unsurprisingly, the mystery surrounding the identity of the sitter, the meaning of her enigmatic smile and the relationship between the painting and its many replicas adds to this layer of smoke in a figurative sense. The most fundamental puzzle, though, must be why a yellowing portrait of a plainly dressed woman who meets neither the beauty standards of her time (1400s) nor those of the 21st century continues to captivate people in spite of the intense competition. While publicity, mystique and pure admiration for the painterly techniques employed probably contribute to a very large part of its appeal, genuine beauty may yet be found in the lady.
by Tōson Shimazaki in Wakanashū (lit. Anthology of Young Herbs)
初恋 (島崎藤村 『若菜集』)
When I saw you under the apple tree
with your hair combed up for the first time,
I thought you were a ravishing flower
from the flower comb in front of your head.
A grayish museum room, empty except for two lone men gazing at an old painting. Within the painting, the sun sinks towards the horizon in the distance. A flock of birds scurry on their way to their resting place before its light extinguishes. Against the desolate landscape, a man and a woman stop work to bend their heads in prayer, their farming tools and potato harvest strewn around them. It is a quiet moment within a quiet moment, no doubt.
Yet an unseen bell, suggested by the art title (L’Angelus), rings from a church tower in the distant background through the vast landscape, conferring an air of monumentality on the scene. Traditionally recited at 6 am, noon and 6 pm, the Angelus prayer recalls the conception of Jesus. Each time, the church bell is tolled in nine strokes, with a pause between every three rings. Jean-François Millet, whose inspiration for the painting came from his childhood memories, reminisced about how his grandmother would always made sure they paused their work in the fields upon the tolling of the bell to say the prayer for the departed.
This element of sound, enchantingly, intensifies the silence of the scene. As the significance of the prayer grows upon the viewers, the peasant woman’s bowed figure takes on a more profound meaning—a deep feeling of meditation comes between her lowered head and tightly clasped hands while her tilted body bears the weight of religious devotion. Her male counterpart now bares his head and holds his hat not for casual reasons but out of sincere respect for the moment. Their items lie haphazardly on the ground not as a representation of mundane farm life but out of deference to the solemn task called upon them. With life in a sacred standstill and thoughts lost in pious contemplation, we feel the Earth, the skies and the people underneath settle down in an atmosphere of serenity and calm, inside and possibly outwith the picture.
Remarkably, this enhancement of quietude through sound also occurs on a meta level. To present the tranquil sight, the artist did not sit back to savor his soothing memories. Rather, he took to work at his canvas, scratching away at the fabric and layering on paint after paint to recreate the peaceful atmosphere for anyone who would look at his artwork. Herein beckons another moment for contemplation: although tranquility is readily associated with passiveness and inactivity, the reality is probably that deliberate action is often necessary to introduce and maintain calm and quiet. In many cases, the sources of disturbance and noise in everyday life do not go away by themselves or just because we will them to. Instead, active efforts are frequently needed to rein in chaos, halt the natural flow of life and carve out a time and place for repose and introspection.
This insight into the relationship between action and stasis holds lessons for environmental conservation as well. Ecosystems are not saved by renouncing all forms of modern life and artificial systems. In fact, even as human activity has catalyzed the deterioration of many natural habitats, some of the biodiversity currently around might have succumbed to the age-old forces of natural selection if not for the extraordinary feats of engineering and other human interventions. An instinctive, “yuk“-based rejection of all biotechnological innovations, in particular, regardless of their restorative potential, may really be at odds with the preservation of nature. As advances in genetic modification and nanotechnology meet with social resistance, a nuanced approach to the conflict is perhaps most appropriate, lest the curative wonders of our rural landscapes become distant memories revisited with sighs and longing as museum relics.